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Response to Review of The Insecurity State: Punjab and the Making of Colonial Power in British India

Michael Phillip Brunner has written a thoughtful response to my book, The Insecurity State: Punjab and the Making of Colonial Power in British India. While Brunner finds many things about the book worthy of praise, he has also provided a measured critique of what he believes to be its more problematic aspects. As such, I will just take a (relatively) brief moment here to respond to some of the issues he has raised in his review.

One of Brunner’s central concerns is about the lack of clarity in the way I deploy the term ‘anxiety’ throughout my book. In this respect, I think he is perhaps correct. As I was writing, I initially took my cue from Ranajit Guha’s pioneering essay, ‘Not at home in empire’. In his essay, Guha argues that anxiety was a somewhat obscure, yet persistent, unease about the unfamiliarity and immensity of India felt by the tiny minority of British officials who were tasked with ruling over the subcontinent.(1a) According to this definition, ‘anxiety’, by its nature, is something difficult to pin down and define. Guha was clearer when he defined ‘fear’ as something which coalesced around more specific scenarios, such as conspiracies or rebellions. The two concepts are obviously closely related, though distinct. Throughout my book, I tried to explore how British anxieties translated into fears about the vulnerability of the colonial regime, and, often, their own personal safety. In some cases, I am describing very personal and subjective experiences; at other times, I am describing a more generalized, shared feeling of unease and discomfort that pervaded all levels of colonial society. There are some instances, however, where I also use the term ‘anxiety’ according to its more general and commonly-recognized meaning, so there is some slippage at this level. I think the more useful analytical concept that I develop in the book is the idea of a ‘culture of insecurity’, in which the nexus between anxiety, fear, and panic allowed for certain kinds of statecraft that would normally be considered unnecessary or extreme. As I try to make clear, British India’s culture of insecurity was pervasive; it both shaped, and was shaped by, individual experiences and the ‘colonial condition’ of not feeling ‘at home’ in empire, more generally.

The crucial argument that I am trying to make in the book concerns the ways in which the British sense of colonial insecurity in India transformed relatively minor threats into something much greater, and this is where I believe that ‘anxiety’ and ‘fear’ are important, yet hitherto overlooked, analytical categories. Fear develops more easily in situations where individuals are tense and anxious, and fear, in turn, can produce ill-judged, even panicked reactions. When Cowan ordered the summary execution of 49 Namdharis in 1872, for example, he claimed he was facing an incipient rebellion, a second ‘Mutiny’. Of course, this was not the case, but what is important is that Cowan believed that it was. The number of British officials and persons killed or wounded by so-called ghazi ‘fanatics’ was relatively small, yet these attacks terrified the colonial establishment and served as a rallying cry to protect an exposed and vulnerable minority within what was considered to be one the most dangerous parts of the entire British Empire. The extent and effectiveness of the Ghadar Movement in Punjab was also greatly exaggerated by officials like O’Dwyer in order to lobby for increased legal powers (whether this was borne from a genuine concern on his part, or was more of a calculated and cynical attempt to manipulate British insecurity for his own political ends, is harder to say). Thus, while many of the case studies I explore in the book were not just figments of the fevered colonial imagination, as Brunner points out, they did tend to be overblown. Reducing these kinds of assessments to ‘security concerns’ does not adequately capture the way in which British decision-making could be, and indeed often was, coloured by these kinds of irrational and subjective assessments.

Another issue Brunner raises is that my book does not sufficiently challenge the image of omnipotent British rule in India. Instead, he argues that my book actually tends to reinforce this idea. One of the arguments I advance in this book is that colonial insecurity was not just a regressive and reactionary phenomenon, but was actually quite productive for the expanding British colonial regime. From the East India Company’s wars of expansion with India’s Mughal successor states, the maintenance of a powerful military establishment in Punjab, to the creation of draconian legislation, like the Murderous Outrages Act and the Defence of India Act, British India’s culture of colonial insecurity helped to expand the state. On the other hand, however, the growth of this insecurity state also created new problems for India’s colonial rulers. While Punjab’s mighty ‘garrison state’ was undoubtedly essential for the defence of India and the wider British Empire, the British dependence on maintaining the goodwill and loyalty of its important military groups (my book focusses predominantly on Sikhs) also constrained its ability to enact policy as it pleased, making the British profoundly uneasy about anything which might disrupt this delicate military-agrarian political nexus, such as the 1906 Colonization Bill and later the Ghadar Movement. The brutal treatment of the so-called ghazi ‘fanatics’ along the North-West Frontier, which was enabled by the passing of the Murderous Outrages Act, may have given colonial authorities wide-ranging powers to deal with these individuals, but it also appears to have engendered even greater resistance and resentment against the British regime. A useful book by Durba Ghosh, which was published around the same time as my own, shows in vivid relief how the heavy-handed British response to anti-colonial revolutionaries in Bengal produced a similarly vicious feedback cycle, in which the repression of anti-colonial resistance served only to engender greater resistance.(2a) I do not deny that the British colonial state retained the ability to exert a profoundly disruptive (often deadly) force upon its subjects. However, violence and power are not synonymous, and the frequent British reliance on coercive measures (whether gruesome spectacles of public execution or draconian legislation) appear much less to be the actions of a confident state that can command obedience from its subjects, than manifestations of an absence of such power.

The final significant critique that Brunner raises is about the disconcerting absence of Indian voices in my book. This is a book that set out to analyse British colonial mentalities, and so it necessarily focusses on those (as Brunner himself acknowledges). Nonetheless, as I point out in the book, Indians were often some of the most astute critics of the colonial state’s propensity to panic and exaggerate threats into greater ones in order to expand the state’s coercive arsenal. Following the Punjab disturbances of 1919, the Indian National Congress published a report condemning the ‘panicky’ and heavy-handed British reaction to these events.(3a) This was followed by Pearay Mohan’s An Imaginary Rebellion and How it was Suppressed (1920), which was unrelenting in its excoriating takedown of the British handling of the unrest.(4a) Indian reformers, including Vitalbhai Patel and later Sundara Satyamurti worked to repeal the Murderous Outrages Act and other ‘repressive legislation’, while others challenged the British about their propensity to use this law in dubious circumstances. As I note in the book, it is also interesting how some Indian politicians, including Muhammad Ali Jinnah, supported the preservation of the Murderous Outrages Act. Whether this was because Jinnah truly believed in the necessity of the law, or whether this was a more calculated realization that any attempt to repeal too many of the colonial state’s coveted coercive powers was doomed to failure, is more difficult to discern (though it is interesting to note that the law was not repealed in post-colonial Pakistan).

On the subject of the Murderous Outrages Act and the so-called ‘fanatics’ it was designed to punish, there is an interesting question about whether it is possible to effectively recover their voices, considering that they were often executed in great haste and tended not to leave behind much in the way of written testimonies, aside from the problematic, colonially-mediated reports produced by British officers themselves. This is an issue I have dealt with in another article that appeared in Comparative Studies in Society and History.(5a) In it, I argue it is possible to parse the reductive colonial stereotypes and assumptions that shape these sources to glean a more complex picture of what motivated individuals to take up arms against colonial officials. These could range from political acts of resistance, the venting of personal grievances, or genuine religious motivations. The reaction of the local Muslim community to the British practice of incinerating the bodies of dead ‘fanatics’ also provides an important counter-balance to the British belief that they were somehow exploiting a widespread superstition that this would destroy their souls, demonstrating that this was patent nonsense. Though they may have disagreed with their methods, large numbers of the Muslim community nonetheless continued to support the British. Islamic scholars, legal experts and organizations like the Peshawar Islamia Club argued that these attackers were not ‘true’ Muslims, and the Anjuman-i-Islamia issued a fatwa against these so-called ghazis in 1900.

In the end, it was not my intention to marginalize Indian voices, or to reproduce the same problematic and unfamiliar ‘other’ which was such a constant source of anxiety for the colonial officials I study. As this was a detailed study of the British mindset, that is where the focus necessarily lay. I think that a productive avenue for future research lies in exploring the phenomena of anxiety and insecurity more broadly within colonial South Asia. Indeed, a colleague of mine who works on early-modern India suggested that these kinds of issues were by no means unique to the British, and, in fact, can be found among India’s Mughal rulers. It would be interesting to study these issues in greater depth to see to what extent colonial anxieties really were ‘colonial’ (as I suggest in my epilogue, both Pakistan and India have shown a marked tendency to operate as insecurity states, and even some Western countries engaged in the so-called ‘War on Terror’).

Criticisms notwithstanding, I am grateful to Brunner for engaging with my arguments and ideas. The goal of this book was to provoke a conversation, and to encourage a reassessment of how we understand the dynamics of colonial rule. If it continues to do so, then I will consider it a success.


  1. Ranajit Guha, ‘Not at home in empire’, Critical Inquiry, 23, 3, Front Lines/Border Posts (Spring 1997), 482–93.Back to (1a)
  2. Durba Ghosh, Gentlemanly Terrorists: Political Violence and the Colonial State in India 1919–1947 (Cambridge, 2017).Back to (2a)
  3. Report of the Commissioners Appointed by the Punjab Sub-Committee of the Indian National Congress (Lahore, 1920).Back to (3a)
  4. Pearay Mohan, An Imaginary Rebellion and How it Was Suppressed: An Account of the Punjab Disorders and the Working of Martial Law (Lahore, 1920).Back to (4a)
  5. See Mark Condos, ‘“Fanaticism” and the politics of resistance along the North-West Frontier of British India’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 58, 3 (2016), 717–45.Back to (5a)